McDonnell: “We must face up to the reality that the Agreement has run out of road”

Today’s Belfast Telegraph editorial notes what it believes are the choices facing the new SDLP leader:

There are a number of choices facing Dr McDonnell. Does he take on Sinn Fein directly in the Assembly, trying to point up that party’s failings in dealing with the current economic crisis and arguing that Sinn Fein’s cosy relationship with the DUP is just an exercise of political muscle with little end result?

Will he take the party into opposition at Stormont? That is not really in the ethos of the party which – even as a minority party behind unionism – was more used to setting the agenda and creating new political processes. But if he was to work more closely with Alliance and the Ulster Unionists and create innovative policies he could reenergise the party and give it a sense of direction. There are some who might argue that he is not the man for innovation, but we shall see.

Or does he spend more time building up the SDLP at ground level. There is no doubt that the party’s organisation lags far behind that of Sinn Fein and there are certain nationalist areas of the province where it has only minimal presence and minimal votes. Voters love winners and want to feel that their ballot counts for something and can make a real difference.

In fact, it may be that he seeks to move ahead on all of these fronts. First and foremost I suspect, to be accidentally perverse, will come the third option.

What McDonnell’s election provides for is a shift away from the party’s post Belfast Agreement defence rhetoric, not least his suggestion that the party had become a bit hypnotised by its by tedious and incomprehensible role as defender of the BA:

I would like to smash the myth that Sinn Fein and the DUP are somehow invincible. They’re not – they are just a bit better than us at getting votes.

But above all I want to smash through the limits to our own political vision. We put so much into the Good Friday Agreement that we became hypnotised by it. We must now face up to the reality that the Agreement has run out of road.

I don’t interpret that, necessarily, as a threat to go into opposition. Despite its widespread advocacy, there seems little appetite for what would likely be interpreted by the public (ie the voters) as ‘giving up work’ than actually providing a useful function.

But it would not take much shift to turn a party with just one minister on board into an effective resistance rather than a opposition as such, but only if the mentality, the arguments and, most importantly, a much tighter connection to the voter base is in place.

One thing is clear: this war for votes of McDonnell’s can only be fought on an asymmetrical basis.

He has no big artillery, or tanks (with the possible exception of himself) to deploy; and no vast corporate organisation to call upon to ‘volunteer’ (SF has a turnover of about £1 million). His first aim should be, as Alistair Campbell once counseled the Tories under IDS, to cause as much trouble behind enemy lines as possible.

The SDLP has been ‘think tank’ mode for a long time so the change he’s after won’t happen overnight. But unlike Margaret Ritchie he has three and a half years before the next election in which to prepare his party for the electoral battle for its life.

Any administration that takes seven months to produce a straightforward Programme for Government, (with no legislation passed in the first term back after the summer), and in which the deputy First Minister feels he can take a five week sabbatical to go and fight and unsuccessful campaign in another territory is is one that’s ripe for disruption.

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  • “Any administration that takes seven months to produce a straightforward Programme for Government … is ripe for disruption.”

    Mick, I don’t see much disruption coming from the MSM (or Slugger) with regard to the PfG or other matters of poor governance. And what about the role of the QUB Institute of Governance? I give politicians and political parties a bit of stick here and on NALIL blog but others need to step up to the mark too if the people are to get a better quality of democracy.

    There are plenty of opportunities for the SDLP (and others) to improve government at the local as well as at the regional level which cost very little money but which could easily transfer to votes for those who make the effort. And votes at local level could easily translate into votes at regional level.

    For example, up in Moyle we’ve had councillors from a range of parties and independents discussing, at length, a proposal to pursue a bloke through the courts for non-payment of a fixed penalty for dropping a cigarette butt whilst folks of influence can wreak havoc amongst our built, industrial and natural heritage with little let or hindrance from politicians or other public servants.

    Quite recently a UUP minister responded promptly and positively to a request for ministerial assistance in Moyle whereas we’re still awaiting action from the SDLP minister at the same location.

  • Mick Fealty


    That’s a job for politians and political parties who are ambitious for power and influence. How else do you think SF and the DUP came to be where they are?

    That’s not a defence of status quo within the media, but I think you’re taking your own preferred track away from the issues raised above.

  • sherdy

    The SDLP would know about running out of road!

  • FuturePhysicist

    Mick, not knowing what the SDLP will do RE: Sinn Féin and Opposition I don’t believe either conflicts with growing the grass-roots. Indeed in STV he could even earn Sinn Féin and other transfers in some constituencies.

  • the wrong side of 40

    From what he has said so far and from his leadership literature I think that Al is going to take on the SF/DUP axis which he rightly sees as failing to deliver.

    He`ll target poor performance from both of those parties and not just the Shinners. Coming from a nationalist perspective it could be percieved that he is attacking them specifically but i think an overall lack of delivery will be in his sights.

    I think that Dublin/London will also be getting the strong message that survival is not enough for the people. At least with Big Al things will get interesting!

  • Comrade Stalin

    Sure, but they have to stand for something other than “the government are crap”. It has to be a genuine alternative.

  • Zig70

    Looks to me like the SDLP made the basic mistake of confusing management with leadership. Opposition is a nonsense and sides with the UUP. Maybe if the UUP was a moderate unionist party but not under Elliott. I’ll just sit and wait to see how the SDLP represents me as a northerner. I’m a lot more interested in NI’s economic position than a united Ireland. I also want to raise my family in an Irish culture and see it robustly but fairly defended. Maybe good management is what the SDLP need to start with.

  • Mick Fealty

    indeed CS. He’s got a whole passage in his speech on social democratic response to Tory cuts. Yeah, I know, motherhood and apple pie, but it’s an attempt at coherence.

    One solid argument for retaining Attwood at Environment is that he’s actually good at his job. And he’s sharp at analysing what his colleagues are not doing.

    They have to pin the blame on both ends of the OFDFM duopoly, not least because you cannot understand the behaviours of one, without understanding of the other.

    One guy I spoke to tonight came up with an interesting phrase for what we have (courtesy of the petition of concern mechanism), which is ‘minoritarian unionism’.

    The trick for the SDLP will be to tar the inactivity of OFMDFM to SF and their misfiring relationship with the DUP as a party problem rather than a political or constitutional one per se; and allow themselves the space to develop a functional relationship with the UU at some point hence.

  • Mick Fealty

    Here’s an extract from his speech to the Irish Parliamentary Society (50 former members of the Irish Parliament and Senate in Stormont) tonight:

    “We must face up to the reality that the Agreement has reached a road block.

    “Stability is important but it’s simply not enough.

    “We have to realise that the Agreement will not deliver further normalisation or any sort of normal politics.

    “Sinn Fein and the DUP may have kept most of its letter but they have totally emasculated its spirit, and torn out the heart of reconciliation.

    “Parts of the north are more divided and separate than ever before. This is borne out by the fact that there were just nine so –called ‘Peace Walls’ when the first ceasefire came in. Now there are around fifty.

    “This is not the kind of society I want to bequeath to my children and under my leadership the SDLP is going to do something about it.

    “The vision of the founding fathers of the SDLP was of a reconciled people living in a united, just and prosperous New Ireland.

    “That is our vision too, but it is not just some pious aspiration for a distant future.

    “It is a place we firmly intend to go, where I intend to lead the SDLP”.

  • Cynic2

    “He’s got a whole passage in his speech on social democratic response to Tory cuts.”

    The Tory Cuts narrative is populist guff that takes us all nowhere. Our economy is a basket case

  • stewart1

    ‘This is borne out by the fact that there were just nine so –called ‘Peace Walls’ when the first ceasefire came in. Now there are around fifty.’

    Does anyone have a list of the 41 new peace walls since 1997, i can only think of three or four?

  • stewart1, I can’t find a list of new peace walls but I did find this from Henry McDonald (2009):

    The number of so-called “peace walls” separating Catholic and Protestant communities in Greater Belfast has trebled since the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, research has found.

    There are now 80 permanent barriers dividing loyalist and nationalist areas of the city, according to a report by the Community Relations Council (CRC) in Northern Ireland. In 1994, when the Troubles were declared over, there were 26.

    Shawn Pogatchnik (2008) illustrates an article with a map of the major ones.

  • stewart1

    Thanks Nevin

    Found this

    Still don’t see how the figure has trebled or quadrupled in Belfast since the mid/late nineties?

  • stewart1, the CRC has given full details of 88 barriers and numerous CCTV cameras for Belfast about half-way through this 2009 report [pdf].

  • Since SF now occupy the heartland of the traditional Catholic vote, thanks to their tough-guy image and their stash of money, some acquired legally, the SDLP really has to prove that it is not just an anaemic version of the same nationalist project. Given that, to most people, reunification matters a lot less than economic survival, when the economies of both North and South are struggling, the SDLP should have no fears about leaving the old nationalist rhetoric to SF and presenting itself as a party with practical policies to deal with the real issues. On that basis, a coalition with the UU and Alliance makes perfect sense and would be good for all three parties and for NI politics in general.

  • if re-unification does not matter to people, then SF would not be doing so well.
    The animosity SDLP “members” have for SF largely based on long years of confrontation accross council chambers is not actually shared by its voters.
    The SDLP has made little or no headway in convincing people in the so called middle ground. And the principle (as well as playing the averages) is to position itself for what it is perceived by most of its own voters…….republican, left of centre, nationalist.
    The priority for SDLP is to be unashamedly ITSELF.

    The theme has to be 70 plus votes in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. Thats the “crunch”. And the loss of that seat was more about lack of organisation than any other single factor. That loss can be put right on simply organising postal votes better.

  • Lionel Hutz

    It’s all silly talk. If the Sdlp walked, they wouldn’t be holding hands with the UUP. This is the party that wouldn’t even nominate the Sdlp for the Justice Ministry, they cannot even manage token gestures.

    All this nonsense about building practical politics with the UUP and Alliance to deal with “the issues people Really care about.” If the Sdlp walked out and then decided to disown anything unique about itself, then it will get harder than at any time before.

    The nub of this is though that if the Sdlp is be successful, its going to have to either shut up about the “carve-up” and get on with government or go into opposition on its platform. If it does the latter it would need to have a credible alternative programme for government with credible alternative policies which would be very hard to get right when you are out in the cold.

    Inside Government is difficult. They’ve tried to be this internal opposition and it has backfired. If they stay in, they just have to play to their strengths, perform well in the DoE, get a few good news stories, present policies on other areas in a construcive and positive matter, smile and get on with it.

  • Greenflag

    ‘We must now face up to the reality that the Agreement has run out of road’

    Well yes but the GFA road is more like the M25 a continuous circuit . So its a never ending road and the parties which decide to exit the circuit have nowhere to go as even the TUV must notice .

    Good luck to McDonnell in his new position . I favoured him over Ritchie at the last party leader selection . Margaret’s decency and honesty and bending over backwards to ‘unionism’ was a mistake . She should have known from the political experiences of Hume , Currie , Fitt and other moderate Irish nationalist politicians of the past that being a ‘moderate’ is considered a weakness by Unionist politicians and electorates both in their opponents and in their own politicians .

    McDonnell is unlikely to allow any unionist or for that matter SF politician to ‘walk all over’ him . That said he has a job of work to do with no easy path forward at this stage.

  • Comrade Stalin


    I agree completely with your last contribution, it is a very realistic and pragmatic view of things IMO. The grass always seems greener on the other side, I do not think some people have thought through exactly what giving up a ministry means.

    There is a bit of a (sectarian) backstory to the UUP’s failure to support an SDLP justice minister. The SDLP had revealed some time before the day of the vote that their preferred candidate was Alban Maginness. In anticipation of this, the DUP (via Nelson McCausland) prepared a speech justifying their own failure to support Maginness on the basis of comments he had recently made on an issue connected with sectarian attacks on public housing somewhere in North Belfast. On the morning of the vote, the UUP got wind that the DUP were planning to do this, so they hastily decided not to support Alban’s nomination and put up their own candidate instead. They really are a complete farce of a party.

    Some kind of arrangement between the UUP and SDLP in the Assembly would form a powerful message. Despite what FJH says, I believe that in the right circumstances nationalists would warm to this idea. They did in the period around 1998 when they bolstered support for the Agreement by transferring to pro-Agreement UUP and even PUP/UDP candidates. Sadly, the UUP just isn’t in any kind of shape for talking any sense at the moment.

  • FuturePhysicist

    The one area of the GFA where opposition could work in a mandatory coalition, through direct democracy, was that area of The Civic Forum.

    Of course neither Sinn Féin or the DUP would be happy to have it back, indeed to hear the hypocrisy of some who feel that “weeds” are an issue important for the Assembly plenary sessions call this arm of political power a “talking shop.” is disgraceful. If politicans don’t want to speak up for people, it’s easy to establish why they don’t want them to speak up for themselves either.